Railhead by Philip Reeve


TRIGGER WARNING: If you are freaked out by bugs, prepare yourself for pages 238-244.

Railhead by Philip Reeve is an awesome book! It is so imaginative and action-filled! I loved everything about it from start to finish! Now that I’ve caught your interest, let’s get a brief synopsis:

Come with me, Zen Starling, she had said. The girl in the red coat. But how did she know his name?
The Great Network is a place of drones and androids, maintenance spiders and Station Angels. The place of the thousand gates, where sentient trains criss-cross the galaxy in a heartbeat.
Zen Starling is a petty thief, a street urchin from Thunder City.
So when mysterious stranger Raven sends Zen and his new friend Nova on a mission to infiltrate the Emperor’s train, he jumps at the chance to traverse the Great Network, to cross the galaxy in a heartbeat, to meet interesting people – and to steal their stuff.
But the Great Network is a dangerous place, and Zen has no idea where his journey will take him.

Okay, first I have to talk about the endpapers in my copy of Railhead. They’re gorgeous! I don’t usually see endpapers that are patterned, so when I opened the book and saw this beautiful galaxy print on the inside, it was a nice surprise!

Railhead - Front pages

Zen Starling was the main character in this book. He’s a thief who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in life…until he’s asked to impersonate a relative of the Emperor and sneak aboard his train. I definitely didn’t like Zen very much in the beginning of the book. He steals; he makes his sister do the housework, and when she doesn’t have time after working a full shift, he just ignores the mess; and he has plans to leave the house he shares with his sister and their paranoid mother, who is always afraid Zen won’t come back when he leaves the house. He was just very unlikeable in the beginning of Railhead, in my opinion. But he does grow as a person throughout the book, so at least he wasn’t awful from beginning to end.

It never states outright how old Zen is in Railhead. We do get some context clues here and there that suggest he’s in his early twenties. I’m one of those readers who likes to have a ton of details about the characters’ ages, appearance, and personalities, so this kind of bothered me. I’m not sure that it would have bothered most people, though.

This book takes place in the far, far future. Because of this, we get hit with a lot of unfamiliar terms in the first few chapters. Most of them were either defined by context or explained in depth a page or two later. This book has a glossary in the back of it, which I didn’t realize until I was four or five chapters in. However, not all of the futuristic terms were in there. In fact, the terms that were explained well in the story seemed to make up the majority of the glossary terms. The words that weren’t fully explained, such as the lathi stick, weren’t in there. I’m glad that the author included a glossary, I just wish it had been more thorough/helpful.

The fictional places and technologies in Railhead were so creative and unique! I had a hard time picturing some things, though. For example, the character Kobi is described as having henna’d hair. But what does that mean, exactly? Does he have henna tattoos on his scalp instead of hair? Does he have regular hair, but each strand twists and curls to create a pattern reminiscent of a henna tattoo? I also was a bit confused about the layout of the city of Cleave, and I had a hard time picturing the worm machine as a whole. I think the author had such clear pictures of these things in his mind that he failed to realize that his descriptions weren’t detailed enough to create a similar image in the reader’s mind. I think it would’ve been helpful if there were some illustrations of these places and things.


In the last few pages, Zen and Nova are preparing to travel through the new K-Gate. I thought it was odd how Zen just went through the K-Gate without a thought for his mother and sister. Why didn’t he make a short video or give a message to Malik or Carlota to pass onto his family? If I were Zen, I’d want to leave them something, whether it was an “I love you” or “Don’t trust the guardians.” But I never really felt that Zen loved his family as much as he should, so I guess it makes sense that he didn’t leave them a message or video.


Railhead was everything I look for in a book! It had action, interesting characters, a unique plot, and tons of interesting world-building. Although this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, it definitely made me eager to start the second book in the trilogy! I highly recommend reading Railhead and give it 5 stars.




Her fine, graying hair made crazy pencil scribbles against the light from the window behind her. – PG. 13

In the middle of the most important job of his life, he seemed to be growing a conscience. – PG. 125

Her face was very beautiful, he thought. He hadn’t been sure before, but he was now. The mind that lived behind it made it beautiful, the same way that the flame inside a lantern makes the lantern beautiful. – PG. 153

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